How is it that some people continue to get better at managing meetings, designing complex test plans, making presentations, or solving problems? How in general do people improve their performance over time at something?
Peter Bregman in a Harvard Business Review article (November 09, 2019) titled “If You Want to Get Better at Something, Ask Yourself These Two Questions” outlined the process. The first question is: “Do you want to get better?” If you accept your current performance then there is no need to go further.
The second question Peter asks is: “Are you willing to feel the discomfort of putting in more effort and trying new things that will feel weird and different and won’t work right away?” In short, are you willing to put in the work to learn something new? If so, you’re ready to start improving.
The Nature of Improving
In the book, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell he mentions the need to practice in order to master a skill. It’s not just the hours of practice, it is the deliberate practice with feedback that helps you focus on the next step toward mastery.
Having a coach is great, yet if you pay attention, solicited feedback, ask for criticism you can identify what needs improving. This provides a focus for the next practice session.
The feedback element here is essential. It has to be specific and realistic. If my friends that were trying to teach me to swim had said, “just swim better”, that would not be as helpful as “to keep your head down and body level, look at the bottom of the pool”. BTW: with hundreds of such specific recommendations I learned to swim well – not Olympic level by any means, yet much better than the flailing around I was doing.
Part of learning something new includes unlearning. Sometimes it means trying something new and uncomfortable. Sometimes it means being conscious about your work or interactions that you had paid little attention to in the past.
With deliberate practice that includes timely meaningful feedback, anyone can improve.
A Two-Step Approach to Improve
Step one – decide that you want to improve, even if it means you may have to struggle as you learn. Decide you want to put in the time and energy to improve. Then set aside time to do so.
Step two – find a way to get feedback. Find a coach or mentor or trusted friend. Find someone that has already mastered a skill and ask them to provide feedback to you.
This second step includes getting a clear vision of what you want to improve and to what level. It includes doing the work, the practice, and getting insights on what is going well and what could use improvement. The feedback from either watching a video of yourself presenting to a group or from a coach has to focus on details. What is the next step to learn and master as you move toward your goal?
Be Patient with Yourself
English is my native language and I learn how to write in English ‘more better’ every day (looks like i still have a ways to go to master writing). It takes time to practice, to learn, to build on incremental improvements.
Set intermediate milestones for yourself. If working on improving gestures when presenting, notice when you gesture appropriately without thinking about doing the specific gestures consciously. That step in presenting well has started to move into your mastered skill set category. Notice and celebrate the milestones along the way.
Maintain Your New Mastery
One way to maintain your newly acquired mastery is to continue to solicit feedback and continue to improve. Another way is to set up ‘tune-up’ sessions on occasion. Maybe every six months seek feedback, then practice and shore up areas that may have reverted to prior performance levels.
In the work we do, there is always something to learn. Both our technical prowess and our ability to work with others certainly provide ample areas for improvement. Whether reliability modeling or influencing a team’s use of reliability models, we can improve our abilities with a bit of desire and effort.
For me this process never ends, there is a lot to learn and master. How about you? What do you want to improve? Ready to put in the work?